September 18, 2009
Cairo: Faded Glory.... Quixotic quests for restoration
FT's profile on Cairo, and reviving it's downtown, at FT.com Investors seek to revive faded glory of Cairo (and as well the video commentary here
FT.com / Video & Audio / Audio slideshows - Resurrecting the Paris of the Orient (ahem, I believe that was Beirut, but...)) is interesting for a reflexion on the damage bad governance has done to Arab economies and civic areas. When I lived in Cairo I tried doing downtown as I adore art deco, but the hell of the constant din made it unlivable. Refurbishing buildings is not enough, mastering the insanity that is Cairo traffic, reducing traffic pressure is an absolute must. Of course, like Algeria, Cairo is a living testament to what the incoherence of "Arab Socialism" can do to an economy and its socio-economic fabric.
But as to the renovation plans, frankly I think it is tilting at windmills unless the orderliness is restored, and that seems impossible given the incompetence of the Egyptian regime. Sheer bad governance (and yes, the Egyptian regime is good at keeping itself in power, but that is not good governance) and general economic incompetence (although recent reforms, since 2001 or so are slowly starting to convince me that there is an exit from the Arab Socialism thinking, at least Egypt shows now more signs of clearer thinking and planning than the cretins running Algeria).
BTW, I did not know the American Uni had shut its downtown campus. Pity that. Such things are historical anchors.
(An aside, In Lounsbury some recent economics related rants re Algeria: on speaking Truth to Le Pouvoir; and on conducting jihad against rational economic policyl.
FT after the break:
Investors seek to revive faded glory of Cairo
By Heba Saleh in Cairo
Published: September 17 2009 22:12 | Last updated: September 17 2009 22:12
Those who remember central Cairo before the 1960s speak of its gracious belle époque buildings, smart department stores and lively cafés frequented by a cosmopolitan elite of Egyptians, Europeans, Jews and Armenians.
The past 50 years, however, have been a story of decline. Socialism introduced in the 1950s impoverished the old Egyptian elite and drove out foreigners. The city centre fell into disrepair as rent control laws reduced to a pittance the incomes of landlords, who stopped investing in the upkeep of their properties.
The Talaat Harb Square's elegant facades have been decaying
Talaat Harb Square: elegant facades have been decaying for decades as the middle classes flee to gated compounds in the suburbs on the city's east and western fringes
So the buildings have been decaying for decades, their elegant facades hidden behind rows of garish shops. Although still a commercial centre, downtown Cairo has grown shabby over the years. Street hawkers have invaded the pavements, while workshops and small businesses have taken residence in the properties, often damaging them.
Yet, whatever their state, the buildings of central Cairo represent a rich architectural heritage. Most date from the early 20th century, a time when Cairo was a meeting place of civilisations and itself a centre of culture and the arts. The architecture reflects a wide variety of European styles, including baroque, neoclassical and art deco.
Salvaging this neglected heritage is an ambition of a new company, al-Ismailia for Real Estate Investments, which has been buying up properties in the centre.
“Our concept is to acquire those old, fantastic buildings, with their beautiful French and Italian architecture, and start investing in them, adding value,” said Karim Shafei, the chief executive. “The concept is to revive the whole of downtown, architecturally, socially, culturally and on the entertainment level.”
Al-Ismailia has bought 13 properties, including a cinema, and it is in negotiations to buy half a dozen more. Ultimately, its aim is to restore and rent out 1m sq m of downtown property. That will include residential and office buildings, restaurants, cinemas and cultural spaces.
The company was founded last year by a group of heavyweight Egyptian and Gulf investors. They include Samih Sawiris, an Egyptian developer, and Sheikh Sulaiman Abanamay of Saudi Arabia. Two private equity firms, Beltone and Amwal al-Khaleej, are partners. Al-Ismailia has a paid in capital of $55m (€37m, £33m), and it recently announced plans to raise another $80m.
One of the company’s first acquisitions, the Viennoise building, named after a guesthouse that was once on the property, typifies the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Now something of a wreck, it needs extensive structural work to make it safe. The facade is scarred by haphazardly placed air conditioning units and by shopfronts clad in black granite.
Beyond the grime and the disrepair, however, it is possible to see the shell of an elegant European building with high ceilings, wrought- iron balconies and carved stone decorations. If Al-Ismailia’s plans come to fruition, the Viennoise could one day become a boutique hotel or a company headquarters.
“Egypt has no laws to protect these buildings,” says Yasmine Dorghami, the editor of Turath, Egypt’s Heritage Review.
“I support the project and the principle of private investment and gentrification because the only way to protect them is by raising their value and making them lucrative.”
However, enticing the middle classes back to central Cairo could prove difficult. Prosperous Cairenes have been leaving the area for decades. The latest trend has been for the wealthy to isolate themselves in luxurious gated compounds built in the desert on the eastern and western fringes of the city. Schools, shopping centres and office buildings have started to spring up in these communities
The American University in Cairo, a venerable institution that produced generations of business and professional leaders, joined the exodus last year. It abandoned its landmark city campus for much larger premises in the desert of east Cairo.
However, Mr Shafei is adamant the company will be able to rekindle interest in the city centre, because of its position and because property is cheaper than in the suburbs. He points to the urban regeneration experience of New York as evidence that it should be possible to reverse the decline in at least parts of central Cairo.
“You don’t need to acquire the whole place [downtown],” he says. “If you buy a big enough cluster, close enough buildings, you can have an impact on at least that area.
“We know it is going to be a difficult job. It will take 10 to 15 years until downtown is what we imagine it should be.”
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I thought this article did a good job of showing how onerous the dead hand of the Egyptian state could be.
Posted by: dubaiwalla at September 18, 2009 11:20 AM
Turns out killing all the pigs in Egypt wasn't such a great idea either. Surprisingly, the consequences of this action were not seriously contemplated by the regime...
Posted by: Djuha at September 20, 2009 12:51 PM
re Cairo v. Beirut as Paris of the Orient. Cairo was 19th century, Beirut was 20th. All sorts of stuff about Ibrahim Pasha trying to construct Paris on the Nile.
Posted by: djafar at September 30, 2009 10:32 AM
yeah, what djafar said. The street layout of Cairo with its diagonals and squares was definitely patterned on Paris (see Cairo, Raymond, pg. 312 ff.) and the destruction of the old city was also a Parisian thing. I like the point in this article that no amount of refurbishing will get rid of the modern traffic..
Posted by: Martyn at October 14, 2009 07:59 PM